As teachers at 20 Ontario school boards begin job action in protest of a contentious new law, Ontario’s education minister vowed to step in and take action if student safety is threatened in any way.

A statement issued by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation did not specify what the job action will look like, but said that no further negotiations are scheduled.

Minister of Education Laurel Broten said the province is monitoring the situation closely and will step in and stop the action if student safety is compromised.

“I’m minister of education, but I’m also a mother of school-aged children and I understand Ontario families expect their kids to be safe when they go to school. So we’re particularly concerned with teachers, if they do not take attendance and will not do supervision,” she said. “We will monitor closely and we will respond if the need arises.”

The OSSTF is one of several unions upset over Bill 115, a law passed in September that places a two-year wage freeze on veteran teachers and limits the ability to bank sick days. The law also targets collective bargaining rights, giving the province the power to ban lockouts and strikes.

The education minister said that under the bill, entitled the ‘Putting Students First Act,’ the province has “the tools to act and will fully explore these options” as teachers begin their strike action.

Sanctions by OSSTF teachers were slated to begin last week, but the union delayed job action in a last-ditch attempt to negotiate with departing Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals.

Few details have been released about the most recent sanctions, but in a bulletin outlining last week’s postponed job action, the union offered several suggestions on how to work-to-rule.

It’s possible that teachers could take job action by:

  • Only working scheduled hours, unless overtime pay is provided
  • Taking a full lunch away from their classrooms, without walkie-talkies
  • Availing of any and all scheduled breaks

Some principals also expressed concern over student safety.

“The only way to ensure that students are safe is to have an adequate number of teachers and trained adults supervising in the school every day,” said president of the Ontario Principals’ Council Ken Arnott.

"If this supervision is withdrawn, or if on-calls for absent teachers are not covered, schools will not be safe places for learning."

However, OSSTF President Ken Coran maintained that the action is needed.

“There were tight deadlines that were established. As most people are aware we postponed those deadlines in the hopes of achieving an agreement this weekend,” he said. “That didn’t happen.”

Some of the other changes that may occur:

  • The cancellation of after school programs
  • Parent-Teacher interviews scheduled during the day time
  • Sports games rescheduled or cancelled
  • Delays to sending out report cards

The OSSTF has said it is open to negotiations on the provincial and local level. In the past, Coran has said that their ability to bargain was “obstructed” by the passing of Bill 115.

The union boasts 60,000 members across Ontario that range from public high school teachers, occasional teachers, educational assistants, psychologists, secretaries and more.

Some teachers who aren’t in a strike position have already begun to halt voluntary activities like coaching sports teams and parent-teacher meetings.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has advised its members to keep comments on student report cards to a bare minimum to protest the bill.

Four unions are taking the government to court over the contentious bill. They argue that the wage freeze law is unconstitutional and violates their collective bargaining rights. Under the legislation, the government can impose its own agreement if it doesn’t approve of what the unions and school boards negotiate together.

The bill is part of a government initiative to get nearly 500,000 public sector workers to accept a two-year wage freeze to help cut the province’s $14.4-billion deficit by 2017.

For a full list of school boards affected by the strike action, please follow the link.

With files from The Canadian Press